Musicheads Essential Album: Bob Dylan, 'Desire'

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Bob Dylan 'Desire' album cover.
Album art for Bob Dylan's 'Desire.' (Columbia)

One of Bob Dylan's most atmospheric albums, alternately riveting and ruminating, Desire stands alongside Blood On the Tracks as a crucial turning point between Dylan's explosive early work and his wide-ranging maturity. It's a Musicheads Essential Album.

Like many Dylan albums, Desire had a tough act to follow. It was released on January 5, 1976: just a year after his wildly acclaimed Blood on the Tracks and just half a year after the official release of the seminal Basement Tapes. As with The Basement Tapes, though, Dylan got a lot of help from his friends.

He'd spent much of 1975 touring with the aptly-named Rolling Thunder Revue, a sprawling group of musicians who Dylan brought into Columbia's New York studios for a set of sessions that became steadily more stripped down as Dylan searched for the intimacy he needed for songs like "Sara," a song about his failing marriage that would stand as one of the most nakedly autobiographical compositions in Dylan's entire catalog.

Although the album features legends like Emmylou Harris and Eric Clapton, the signature musical presence of Desire is Scarlet Rivera, whose violin lends an air of mystery and romance to the entire LP. Her furiously impassioned playing adds momentum and dimension to the album's best-known song, "Hurricane." Dylan's most important protest song since his folksinger days, it's a howl of indignation at the racist treatment of boxer Rubin Carter, who was imprisoned on highly dubious murder charges.

Desire also marked a new writing technique for Dylan, who collaborated on seven of the album's nine songs with co-writer Jacques Levy. Though Dylan would return to solo authorship for most of his subsequent work, Desire was all the stronger for the artist's willingness to raise a big tent and share his process with a sympathetic group of like-minded souls. Despite its sometimes painful subject matter, Desire hums with the warmth of a collaborative community.

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